"The Language Makes The Message"
by Rev. Ronald Harbaugh
St. John's Lutheran Church (ELCA)
15:9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I remember reading a commentary that transported me back in time to when I was just beginning my high school education. Of course, I, like many of the students in my class, found entering the “Big School” as we called it, a little anxiety producing. And there was little to ease that anxiety for those of us who encountered Ms. Blouse for English class. She had to be ten years past retirement age, carried a long pointing stick that she would slap on your desk with a bang when she wanted you to answer her question. My classmates and I determined that she had to have graduated from Satan University.
I will also admit that I considered a high school course in English to be a waist of time, since we all spoke the language, and understood each other perfectly. But being able to speak and communicate with each other was not enough for this lady. She taught the class as if we were studying biology. She had us dissecting sentences as if they were a frog on the table in the science lab. It wasn’t enough for her to have us realize that you need a noun and a verb to make a complete sentence. It wasn’t enough for her to have us know the difference between an adverb and an adjective. No, we had to learn the difference between the indicative and the imperative, and understand syntax.
Well, after struggling through that course from Hades High School with a passing grade I wasn’t proud of, I hoped that I would never have to deal with that nonsense again. And my hope almost came true. I didn’t have to think about that grammar stuff throughout the rest of my high school classes, or in college. And by that time, I had forgotten about all about that class, and everything Ms. Blouse tried to teach us.
And then came seminary, and with it, courses that made me wish that I had paid more attention in that course in English I had to take in my freshman year of high school. In particular, were two courses with a title that I didn’t even know what it meant – Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a fancy word that means, quite simply, the art of interpreting Scripture. And for this course, syntax, and the ability to understand the difference between the imperative and the indicative of sentence structure was a must.
Well, from my courses in hermeneutics, I learned that in Scripture and theology, the imperative to action grows out of the indicative. Now, for those of you who have enjoyed those courses in grammar as much as I have, let me put it this way, by repeating another illustration. Before almost every first in my life, like getting the car for the first time, or going on my first date, my father would say to me “Ron, remember who you are. You are a Harbaugh, and what you do reflects upon all of us in this family that bears that name. Behave yourself.”
At the time, all I remember hearing from my Dad was Ron, behave yourself. Like most teens, what I heard from my Dad was just another commandment to infringe on my freedom and fun. I had to be on my best behavior, or he wouldn’t be happy with me. But the way that I had interpreted what my Dad said to me, was to ignore the indicative.
The truth is, I only heard half of my Dad’s statement. My Dad began his comment with the indicative, to remember who I was. He was asking me to remember that I was loved and a member of a family that loved me, and cared about me. And yes, as a member of this family, he was asking me to remember that there are certain values, certain principles around which we are united and bound to each other. That was what my Dad was first asking me to do, to remember that I was a part of a family that loved me.
Out of this knowledge, comes the imperative. By remembering that I am loved and cared about as a member of the family, I am to reflect this fact in the way I live my life. My father’s plea that I behave myself when out on my own, was really a call to reflect the love and values by which I have been embraced by our family. The imperative, the call to action that my Dad was giving me was to live my life as a person who knows the love and nurture of the family, whose name I bear.
Dad was not saying to me, “Behave yourself, or I won’t love you, and you can’t be a Harbaugh any more.” He was saying to me, Ron, you are a Harbaugh, and we love you, reflect that fact as you go out from this home on your own, by your actions to those around you.
This dynamic of the imperative to action growing out of the indicative is the kind of language that we find in our Gospel lesson for this morning. Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
In this statement, the indicative, the statement of fact from which our call to action originates, is quite clear. Jesus tells us, his disciples, those whom he has embraced in baptism to be a member of his heavenly family, “that as God the Father has loved him, so does he love us.” That is the given! That is what is beyond our ability to control! Of this we are assured. Jesus loves us, just as the Father loved him. Just as I was assured of being loved by my family by my Dad, so are we assured of being loved by our crucified and risen Lord.
The imperative, the call to action, grows out of the knowledge that we are loved by God, and embraced by God as a cherished member of his family, forgiven by his grace and loved beyond all expectations. To know this, to remember this, is what give rise to Jesus’ request that we live our lives reflecting to those around us that we are a member of God’s family by keeping his commandment to love one another, as he has loved us.
I think it is important that we grasp the significance of this text clearly. It would be easy for us to turn this text upside down, just as I did as a teen, and interpret the message to read backwards, as if Jesus said, “If you keep my commandment, you will abide in my love. Or even worse, would be to read these words of Jesus as if they said, “God will love us, if we keep God’s commandments. But that is not what Jesus is saying. He is telling us that we are loved by God, so live your life reflecting that fact. In this way, we will continue to reflect that we know that we are a member of God’s family, and through our love, invite others to embrace the redeeming love of God.
To me, understanding these verses in their proper syntax makes all the difference to knowing the unmerited grace of God. It tells me that I am first loved by God, even before I am called upon to reflect his love to others. It tells me that God’s love for me is not conditioned upon my actions, as if I must somehow merit his love for me, through earning his love, by my loving others. It tells me that God already loves me, just as my Dad tried to tell me he loved me, so many years ago. And even though I knew that to be a fact, as time went on, I came to hear his true message, and, like a good parent, repeat it to my own children, much to the same closed ears that I once had.
But as the years progressed, I must admit that my children came to hear the imperative flowing out of the indicative. They came to understand, through the love of their own children, what it meant to issue a command stemming from love.
May God’s Spirit so grant us the wisdom to see this text this morning as our risen Lord truly meant it. We are first of all, members of his family. We are redeemed, forgiven and loved by God. We are, through our faith and baptism, members of his family. That is the indicative. That is who we are. Through the power of God’s Spirit, may we be reminded of this fact, each moment of our life, and strive to reflect the love and ethics of the family to which we belong.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, through your gift of grace, revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus the Christ, you have redeemed us from sin and death, and have made us children of your eternal kingdom. Through our baptism, you have promised to love us and accept us as your own, without condition. Still, we are confronted with you commandments, your will for our lives. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to be obedient disciples of our crucified and risen Lord, and live our lives according to command to love one another. This we ask in his holy name. Amen.
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The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission. Sermon contributed by Rev. Ronald Harbaugh on May 15, 2009.
Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”